Fundamentalism

(Nederlandse versie hier)
At Uncertain Principles, there’s a discussion on funding research that may lead to the ILC (Incredibly Large Collider, or something like that). The argument for spending half a billion dollars goes like this: particle physics is fundamental physics, and physics itself is fundamental for all kinds of technological advances. Therefore, we (the US, in this case) need to support particle physics in order to keep up with the technological advances of the future. Chad’s post and the discussion mainly focus on the question whether this is the right argument to make, and whether it is a good idea at all, spending so much on this ILC.

Something else is this idea that particle physics is fundamental physics… Sure, it concerns the smallest particles, the parts of nature that cannot, as far as we know now, be divided into smaller bits. Solar systems consist of atoms, not the other way round. But does that mean that everything else can be – even in principle – described as a consequence of what is happening on that ‘deep’, fundamental level?

It reminds me of “Schreef”, a series of satirical pieces in the University paper UBlad. One of the characters is called Meeldraad, and is usually described as “writing a paper on the use of the letter Z in Lichtensteinian lyric love poetry”. I used to read that as a reference to incomprehensibly abstract, useless scholarly research. But of course, it’s also an example of fundamental research: lyric poetry from Lichtenstein can be studied poet by poet, poem by poem, strophe by strophe, but in the end, every poem consists of letters. Letters are the elementary particles of poetry, so to speak, all words consist of letters, sentences are in turn formed from words… And although it is of course incredibly complicated and not very practical to try and explain the moving quality of the turn in a particular sonnet using only the letters, in principle at least it’s possible!

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